(This post is adapted from a D’var Torah that I presented at a recent Cantors Assembly meeting.)
The Torah has much to say about leadership, and in fact a lot of it happens this week—in Parshat Vayera.
But first, let’s fast forward a bit—to the time of Moses. You know the expression, “Some people are born leaders, others have leadership thrust upon them.” Well, that’s Moses. He didn’t want that job. In fact, if we’re being honest, Moses wasn’t really the best leader. He doubted himself constantly, he despaired when things took a turn—how many times do we read, “And Moses fell on his face”—and at a crucial time, he disobeyed God—by either accidentally or possibly deliberately mishearing God’s instructions and striking that rock in a fit of anger. But Moses did have some good qualities too, which at times made him a pretty decent leader: He was sincere. He was humble. At no time in the text do I read or infer that Moses wasn’t trying his best. In fact, he often argued with God—“No, you can’t go back on your promise to the Israelites and start over with a new people. And anyway, how would that look to everyone else?” I think that this was Moses at his best.
So now let’s return to our current Torah portion already in progress. Abraham is our hero—he is presented as a great leader, both in the text and in the Midrash. He becomes the father of monotheism and history’s first iconoclast by smashing the idols in his father’s shop. He packs up everything he owns and sets off for a new land when God instructs him to do so. God is grooming Avram, now named Avraham—Abraham—to become the leader of this new nation.
And Abraham steps up. In this parsha we read of the events surrounding Sodom and Gomorrah—and we’re all familiar with it. Abraham argues with God at the thought that entire cities—no matter how evil—would be destroyed. He points out, appropriately, that maybe there are a small number of righteous people among the countless who are deserving of punishment. Extended negotiations ensue and Abraham gets God to agree to spare the cities for the sake of ten potentially righteous people. His efforts ultimately fail of course, but what a fantastic show of leadership and humanity. And all of this in complete contrast to Noah—who was good enough in his generation. Noah accepted God’s decree of utter destruction without a single word.
Then…something happens to Abraham. Something changes. He’s not the same guy who welcomed strangers into his tent, who made a sojourn to a new homeland, who at least tried to argue a case to save innocent lives. What was it? I suggest that Abraham became enamored with his role as leader—that he grew overly comfortable and confident–too confident–in his role, that he became prideful and fancied himself God’s own representative on earth. God saw this and suspected this—so as Chairman of the Board, God created a test for His CEO. God wonders, What would happen if I told Abraham to do something so absurd, so beyond the pale, that any rational human, let alone a leader of his caliber, would have to refuse? Or at least argue?
We know how this story—this tragic, awful, poignant, and ultimately unnecessary story unfolds. Abraham—blinded by his own self-image and hubris—fails this test miserably and in the process destroys every relationship he ever had.
After this gut wrenching failure, God turns His face away from Abraham—can’t even bring Himself to tell Abraham to stop, that it was only a test. He sends an angel to give the message. And God never speaks to Abraham again. Ever.
Poor Isaac—the text tells us twice that he and Abraham ascended the mountain together. After this episode—we read that Abraham returned to his servants and travelled to Beer Sheva. It’s pretty clear that Isaac wasn’t with him. In fact, Isaac and Abraham also never speak again.
How about Sarah—the text tells us that Abraham got up early in the morning to embark on this mission with Isaac. It doesn’t actually use the words “snuck out” but…do you think he told Sarah what he was up to? All we know is a few short verses after this story, she dies. One imagines it was out of grief and despair.
This is a disturbing and unfortunate story about failed leadership and what happens when an individual forgets why they were called into service in the first place. Instead, how does the Tanach describe a true and effective leader?
We read in Micah 6:8–
What does Adonai require of you? Only to do justice, love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God.